With “Game of Thrones” coming to an end within the next two years, HBO needs a new hit genre piece with which to enthrall the world. The first attempt to meet that goal granted us the Western/Sci-fi show “Westworld.” The show’s marketing had me interested with mysterious trailers that showed hints and motifs but no actual plot elements. However that mystique is dampened when you learn that this is based on a 1973 film with the same name and is not a completely original idea.
Like the film, the setting of “Westworld” is a future where advanced artificial intelligence is housed in photorealistic bodies made of some mysterious white goo. They haven’t told us what the bodies are made of, and I feel like that is an important detail. They’re not robots because when you shoot them they turn into a bloody pulp, but they are made in a lab. Nevertheless, these “hosts” are the characters in a Wild West-themed small town where the very wealthy can go and live out their desperado fantasies. Apparently, no one in this world has ever heard of video games where you can have your own fantastical adventures without having to deal with the elements or the limits of your own fatigue. The newcomers come in and shoot, loot and have sex with any of the poor hosts. All the signs so far point to the show going down the clichéd AI revolution route, but I do hope the show proves me wrong and subverts the genre tropes.
The show was created by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, who worked on most of the projects of his more famous brother Christopher Nolan. This made sense since most of the flaws of “Westworld” are similar to the flaws of the post-“Dark Knight” films—a lack of both levity and humanity. This show revels in its seriousness. Characters stand around glumly arguing about the nature of reality and what humans want in their fantasies. The dialogue is smartly written; this has never been an issue in the Nolan brothers’ scripts. The problem is that the characters rarely smile or act like real people. This lack of humanity is exemplified in how awkward it sounds when characters swear. These characters are in existentialist crises so often that any profanity feels like a record scratch.
Despite those issues, there is enjoyment to be had here. The show looks great. The landscapes are beautiful to gaze at and the show’s sets, costumes and production design are all top-notch. There are no bad actors on display, though quality of performance is mostly based on how good they can make their dialogue sound. The best takeaways are the ever-talented Jeffrey Wright and Anthony Hopkins, who was born to play the old man who created the hosts and spends the rest of his days droning on about the implications of the technology. Ed Harris is also used well here as the Man in Black, a very intimidating antagonist whose yet-unknown goals capture viewers’ attention. I even like some of those silly unnamed side guests. They are little more than smiling extras in relevance to the story, but they are having much more fun in this outrageous setting than any of the main characters.
“Westworld” is an enjoyable and very ambitious sci-fi drama. However there is not enough interesting character drama to keep you emotionally invested nor enough depth (so far) to stand out in the saturated market of stories about artificial intelligence. If you appreciated Christopher Nolan’s work, especially films like “Interstellar,” you may enjoy this show more. For my taste, with many fascinating new and returning shows, the opening two episodes of “Westworld” were not enough to inspire me to keep coming back to it live. It may certainly be worth a full season binge later though.
Westworld, Episodes 1 & 2
Created by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan
First aired: Oct. 2